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Why, despite a head-to-toe coverage rule, Saudi women must still buy their underwear from a man.
A few stores, mostly in the seaport town of Jeddah, have put up the required physical barriers and hired women. But the vast majority have not.
“It’s not implementable,” said Basmah Al Omair, executive director of the Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Businesswomen Center in Jeddah. “The private sector doesn’t have a problem hiring females. They just have a problem implementing the law as it exists. What we are asking for is that the doors be open, that men and women can come in as a family, and that windows not be obstructed.”
The private sector, she added, “cares about profit and at the end of the day if you’re going to lose profit by hiring female staff, you’re not going to do it.”
The new regulation does not promote the mixing of sexes, as some critics suggest, said Al Omair, adding: “We’ve had men selling to women for 30 years and we haven’t considered that mixing.”
Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, former head of the religious police, formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, told Agence France-Presse in December that he does not oppose women sales personnel in lingerie stores.
But, he added, stores employing women had to be in malls restricted only to women.
"We don't reject the work of the women in lingerie stores if they are not next to men's stores," Gaith said.
Some Saudi women buy their lingerie online or when they go abroad. It’s not an easy situation for male sales staff either.
One 21-year-old Saudi man who works in a lingerie chain called “Women’s Secret” is too embarrassed to tell his friends.
“I swear before I took this job, I never even went into these stores with my sisters and family because I was too embarrassed and now I work in one,” he said.
“I told my buddies I am still unemployed and those of them who know I work think I work in a regular store,” he added. “I can’t allow anyone to see me in this store, it’s too embarrassing. I’d rather they think I’m unemployed.”
Salahuddin Younus, who works in the lingerie section of Debenhems, a large department store, said that after a year and a half, he has gotten used to dealing with customers, most of whom cover themselves head to toe, including their faces.
“Some customers say, ‘My breast is going down. I need to push up,’” said the salesman, who is from Bangladesh, grabbing a push-up bra from a rack.
Asaad began her campaign in July 2008 with a Facebook group. And in recent weeks, she’s taken it a step further by writing to leading retailers threatening to organize a boycott of their stores.
“It’s their job to follow the rules,” said Asaad, who lives in Jeddah and has an MBA from Boston’s Northeastern University. “I’m going to help in causing financial losses because I know this is the one thing that hurts. We are consumers and we have rights.”
Female columnist Abeer Mishkhas suggests that Asaad faces a huge obstacle. Her campaign “might end without a result, as she is not fighting a concrete law or body,” Mishkas wrote in the Arab News, a daily. “She and her supporters are up against a way of thinking that insists that women stay at home.”
Asaad is well aware of the challenges she faces, but for her the campaign is not just about getting female sales clerks in lingerie stores.
“What matters is that we are rising awareness that women can make things happen when they decide to take charge of their affairs,” she said. “That is the essence of this campaign.”
More GlobalPost dispatches by Caryle Murphy: